I don’t know if I’m doing Solomon Kane any favors by discussing its common ancestry; connecting the film to a gene pool that contains Van Helsing and Season of the Witch brands it with a very specific set of very low expectations. In fact, I may be damning Solomon Kane with faint praise when I say that it happens to be several cuts above both of those disasters. Thus, I have to rely on my readers’ trust in me as a critic when I say that Michael J. Bassett’s cinematic rendition of Robert E. Howard’s Puritanical anti-hero really is an earnest and pretty damn entertaining vision of Gothic pulp heroics. It attacks the subject with straight-faced relish instead of melodramatic self-parody.
Solomon Kane is an origin story, an introduction to its eponymous character despite the fact that he’s existed in the annals of genre fiction for over eighty years. Bassett deserves some slack here though; Howard’s name tends to conjure thoughts of Conan the Barbarian first and foremost (we all saw how well last year’s latest screen treatment of the character fared), and despite being one of the author’s major creations, Kane is nonetheless considerably more obscure than his Cimmerian counterpart. As a character, Kane belongs to the same storytelling traditions as Conan– he’s just as much at home in the sword and sorcery category– but he hails from a wholly different period and has a very different mission.
Kane (James Purefoy), as we meet him, is a murderous privateer and a scoundrel who finds himself on the bad end of divine judgment after only a few minutes of running time. His life of sin has caught up with him, he’s informed by a demon sent to collect his soul, and he’s bound for Hell. Kane, naturally, does what any person would do in his situation: he tattoos himself with holy symbols, hides in a monastery, and embraces a devout life of peace. That’s not the end, of course, and Bassett doesn’t waste too much time putting Kane back onto a path of violence as he quests to rescue a young girl (Rachel Hurd-Wood) from the clutches of the sorcerer Malachi (Jason Flemyng) and his demonic minions.
Trust me when I say that the results prove more engaging than the boilerplate generics of the plot suggest. Bassett might not be a flashy director, but there’s nothing wrong with a workmanlike sensibility employed in the service of telling a good story well; what he lacks in flair he makes up for with endurance and confidence. And despite an absence of showmanship, Solomon Kane still looks great, delightfully spooky, endlessly dark and dreary to the point where the production feels haunted all the way through its bones. The entire film very much pulses with the supernatural, emanating a sense that the otherworldly lies in wait behind every tree and inside every decrepit church. Maybe Bassett isn’t much for flashiness, but he knows how to make his film feel eerily alive.
He’s also quite willing to spill a drop or a pint or a gallon of blood and grue when appropriate– and if the final product here indicates anything, his concept of “appropriate” can be defined as “whenever possible”. Solomon Kane is thoroughly violent, earning its “R” rating quite handily with an array of methods for harshly dispatching legions of bad guys. If the solid creature and set design doesn’t pique your interest, then maybe Bassett’s strong hand with paced-out and brutal action scenes will.
And if that‘s not enough to get you on-board, well, then, James Purefoy might like to have a word with you. Bassett’s certainly the engineer here, but the real heavy lifting of Solomon Kane falls squarely on Purefoy’s shoulders. If the movie itself is a relative of Van Helsing, Purefoy feels like a more morose version of that film’s protagonist; he actually looks and sounds like a cross between Hugh Jackman and David Wenham, though his West Country bearings and somber countenance clearly distinguish him as his own man. If the script gives him little to do as far as variety is concerned, Purefoy gamely commands what substance Solomon does have nonetheless. For those who find the brooding of Nolan’s Batman films to be overwhelming, be warned: Purefoy makes Christian Bale look like Adam West. Frankly, that’s part of both the character and the film’s charm, though, and Purefoy deserves great praise for going for the grim with gusto.
So too does the rest of the cast deserve praise; the more well-read among you may recognize the likes of Max von Sydow, Mackenzie Crook, Jason Flemyng, and the late, great Pete Postlethwaite in bit roles here and there, seasoning sprinkled throughout the film to give it more flavor. Amusingly, it’s Solmon Kane‘s moral compass– nestled in between Purefoy’s grim stoicism and Bassett’s well executed action scenes– that marks its most unintentionally interesting characteristic. The film is firmly entrenched in the world of comic book logic, of course, but Kane’s motivation is almost compellingly, purely selfish. Think of the Spider-Mans or the X-Men of the world, who fight for something other than themselves; then consider Kane, who basically takes up the good fight just to keep himself from being dragged to hell. Talk about muddled morality. At least the experience seems to have changed him for the better by the time credits begin rolling.
Of course, there’s little doubt that the real draw of Solmon Kane lies in its visceral pleasures; no one will walk into this film expecting it to be more than a thrilling supernatural period romp. On that score, Kane delivers. That the picture wades into murky waters in terms of heroic purpose is highly irrelevant– whatever animus drives our protagonist, we’re here to watch him employ his skills in kicking undead and demonic butt alike. You won’t walk away from Solomon Kane feeling a closer connection to your fellow man, but you will be satisfied at seeing its central conceit orchestrated with macabre verve.